To begin with it feels nothing but alien, its spaces clean and bleak and anodyne. Nothing is intuitive or familiarly located; every task requires conscious navigation. I feel weary beyond the physical, as if the sheer newness of everything takes effort to process; as if the energy of rolling with every minor adjustment and improvisation compounds into serious exertion. I’m a stand-up paddleboarder, making the countless tiny corrections just to stay upright that amount to a full-body workout.
This, of course, is in my head. The boys bounce around the flat, charmed by the novelties that are now ‘ours’. Their own wardrobes! With shoe baskets! Hooks to hang their new Ikea towels on!
“It’s like a hotel!” they say, and it is, a bit: the dinky detailing of the identikit bathrooms, the utter blandness of the fittings, the absence of all but the most essential furnishings. The blank walls we have no permissible way of decorating, which add to the sense of merely passing through.
The flat is a funny little flat-roofed extension to what was once a Victorian corner shop, the old hand-painted Hovis Bakery signage still visible on the brickwork high above us. There’s evidence that our bit was once a garage, though it has clearly been through multiple adaptations, its age indeterminate. Our first weekend in the flat it pours and I listen nervously to the overhead rain, watching the corners of the low ceiling for damp.
The subterranean bedrooms are at least four degrees colder than upstairs, with a chill damp that creeps into your bones as you descend, as if going down t’mines, or into Gollum’s lair.
Unfazed by the microclimate, the boys set up their own downstairs kingdom, where they sit on their adjacent en-suite thrones and shout companionably to each other in the mornings.
“I’M BREAKING A WORLD RECORD, I’M THE ONLY PERSON IN THE WORLD TOUCHING MY PENIS RIGHT NOW.” Number Two Son.
“THAT’S NOT THE DEFINITION OF A WORLD RECORD. IT’S BEING THE FIRST PERSON TO DO SOMETHING LONGER THAN ANYONE ELSE HAS DONE IT.” Firstborn.
“I AM DOING IT LONGER THAN ANYONE ELSE HAS DONE IT.”
“THAT MAKES YOU A WANKER NOT A WORLD RECORD HOLDER.”
“I’M THE FIRST PERSON IN THE WORLD TO BE GIVING YOU THE SWEAR FINGER RIGHT NOW.”
It’s day two before they have their first fists-boots-and-all bruiser of a fight downstairs – triggered by a behind-the- bathroom-door ambush – but the grunts and thuds and sobbing profanities are muffled by the basement concrete and blessedly easy to ignore. All in all peace reigns, most noticeably at poo o’clock, the old flat’s morning shitfight over the single bathroom instantly defused.
Upstairs, Hapless and I take the room off the kitchen and the bathroom at the other end of the top floor, sacrificing en-suite convenience for a little daylight and distance from the children. We graunch ourselves edging past the sharp-angled furniture crammed into the bedroom, and the hard narrow bed leaves me creaky and wincing in the mornings.
The flat’s chief offence is its pokiness: the effect of a cheap conversion laid out for maximum profit. It’s full of tight corners and awkward angles, few of them ninety degrees. An extra bathroom has been squeezed in downstairs where another metre of bedroom would have been more useful; cupboards and doors have to be opened and closed in the right order so as not to clash; there are towel rails so close to doorjambs that if you were to actually hang towels on them the door wouldn’t close.
But as the empty surfaces become overlaid with our familiar filth and clutter, the sense of weirdness and foreignness evaporates and the flat begins surprisingly quickly to give a convincing impression of home. The process has been unsettling, but noticeably less so than the move last summer, when I was broadsided by the wholesale displacement of our lives, trying to carve out a family-shaped infrastructure in an unexpectedly alien city, still recovering from the trauma of simultaneously parenting, working, packing and emigrating on my own. This time it was a relatively stable base from which things were shaken up.
At last everything is unpacked, the wifi connected and the daily rhythms of the household reestablished. As we begin to wear a new groove through the flat I finally feel it: this place, too, can be a base for a nice city life.
Number Two Son declares himself ‘Boss of the Block’ and takes off on his skateboard to explore the neighbourhood from this new angle. He learns his way round the network of alleyways and shortcuts between the estates and no-exits and park and pops importantly down to Budgens or the Saturday farmers’ market for supplies, full of new confidence. After two miserable terms he seems to have found his level at school. He’s weathered some sort of initiation, and his former tormenters are now at least superficially his mates.
On school mornings I stand on the doorstep waving goodbye as he crosses at the zebra crossing and skips – literally, these days – off to school, against the tide of commuters streaming towards the tube. A few minutes later I step out the front door myself, directly into the energy and flux of the city.
At weekends we sit on our stoop drinking cups of tea watching Tufnell Park Road go by, disconcerting the locals with smiles and hellos. Foot traffic is steady. Strangers walk past our windows close enough to touch while we’re standing at the fridge, though mostly they don’t notice us, even with the blinds open. We fling them open as soon as we’re decent in the morning to ward off claustrophobia.
We train the boys not to leave the front door open so Hapless doesn’t step out of the upstairs bathroom stark bollock naked in full view of the terraces opposite. We teach them to do dishes by hand and bribe them to take the rubbish to the shared dump round the corner. They find a courtyard in the neighbouring estate where a tennis ball can be cautiously belted with a bat, and disappear there for great chunks of time, returning only when their supply of balls and/or tolerance for each other are exhausted. I adjust to the fact that I can’t do Pilates while there’s laundry drying in the narrow living space, or blow-dry both sides of my head while facing the mirror (though it’s possible if I kneel).
It’s just as the domestic dust starts to settle that all hell breaks loose in the country. My early memories of this flat will be saturated with the surreal sense of a world off its axis, of a society outside the plain front door that I don’t recognise: one I don’t want to know but which can’t be ignored.
The zone of shock extends wider than just my social media bubble. It’s the urban, culturally meshed bubble of London, the city that just voted in Sadiq Khan, the city in which I haven’t knowingly met a single Leave voter, which is now flippantly, wistfully, calling for secession from the UK.
In my convivial hot-desking office, a place delightfully free of workplace politics, the denizens range in age from 20 to 70. The people I sit with often include the young Lebanese property developer currently fasting for Ramadan and his environmental-activist brother; the 28-year-old insurance salesman/part-time rabbi, whose baby-blue yarmulke matches the shirts his wife buys him; the handsome Mancunian chemical-engineer-turned-digital-marketer with the Nigerian surname who speaks fluent Norwegian; the posh young intern with the tack-marks of her grammar-school head girlship still visible on her. I would trust any of them with the lives of my babies. In the breakout area the large robed pink-skinned white-bearded vegan who calls himself Ibrahim – though he was probably born Norman – flirts with the beautiful blonde Spanish office manager with the perfect cheekbones and Abbaesque dress sense. The lushly red-bearded filmmaker and his soft-voiced black sidekick make macho protein-heavy salads. The best laughs at the coffee machine are with the studio of young UX designers who seem strangely entertained by the mouthy middle-aged Kiwi lady copywriter. We are all of us united in our incredulity and alarm, and for days we talk about nothing else.
I feel it as keenly as a citizen, or so I like to think. I love this country, where I’ve spent eight years of my life, which feels suddenly now like a sinking ship, scuttled by half its crew with a misdirected sense of mutiny. Of course it’s not the same for me as a native; I have a Commonwealth lifeboat I can deploy whenever I like. But I’m still mostly in denial about that.
I badly don’t want to go, not yet, not for ages. But despite threats of profound upheaval and economic hardship, the underinformed rabble in our own domestic referendum are determined to vote Leave. They demand a nostalgic return to a green and pleasant land where people talk like us and the air is filled with the sound of willow on leather for six months of the year, where you can get proper bread and cereal and not this disappointing foreign muck. And all that those of us clinging to power can do for now is hold off on triggering the necessary mechanisms for as long as we can.